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Last Night in a First Town

by stephanie owens about a year ago in science fiction

A traveling story

I woke to the sounds of clanking dishes and the smell of greasy food. When I opened my eyes I could see that I was sitting in a corner booth in the back of a diner. How did I get here, I pondered? I rubbed the haziness from my eyes and when I opened them again a pretty young waitress was tapping her pen against a pad of paper.

"Welcome back, sleepyhead. Did you have a good nap?" she said sarcastically. "What'll you have?" She seemed too young to be so surly.

I must've had a confused look on my face because she impatiently tapped the dog-eared menu on the table.

"I'll just have coffee, black." I groggily said. She huffed and walked away, presumably to get the coffee. I used the time to study my surroundings for some familiarity.

It was a small diner with no exceptional features. The menu contained standard "greasy-spoon" fare and didn't include the name of the place. There were exactly four people other than me dining this morning, which included the young waitress, a cook, and one other diner. I suppose there could've been another person in the back but I didn't think so. According to my watch, it was well after midnight and I'm guessing I missed the rush.

I focused my attention on the man sitting at the other end of the room in the opposite corner booth as me, reading a newspaper. As I studied him he looked up from the paper, smiled, but resumed reading without much interest in me. So much for the theory that I was meeting him here.

The waitress plopped down my coffee without a word and resumed her work. I sipped the dark brown liquid and sighed. Nothing beats a good diner coffee and this was some of the best I'd ever tasted. While enjoying the coffee I didn't notice the man get up and walk in my direction then drop the paper on the table beside me. When I looked up from the table where he'd dropped it I couldn't see him but assumed he'd made his way to the restroom.

I examined the paper and noticed right away the date, October 5, 1982. That can't be right; when I woke up this morning I swear the year was 2021. How could it be 1982 and how the hell did I get here? I frantically checked my pockets for my cell phone only to realize I didn't have it. I pulled out the sum of my belongings and arranged them neatly on the table in front of me. There were ninety-seven dollars in small bills, a business card containing one name; Miles Long, Attorney at Law in bold type, a paperclip, key to something I wasn't familiar with, ten-cent coin, ballpoint pen, small note pad, and a button that appeared to come from a formal coat.

Hmmm...I pondered the items for a long time. So long that the waitress filled my cup twice. When I finally looked up the man from the other booth was sitting across from me. I never noticed him joining me and I'm sure I appeared startled to see him sitting there.

He was staring at me silently with a half-smile pasted on his face. "Who are you? Do I know you?" I leaned in closer for that last question as if we were co-conspirators hatching a plan of escape.

He remained silent for a couple of minutes but his expression changed to one of contemplation. When he finally spoke he had a melodic voice, quiet but pleasant to the ear. "My name is Miles and we met two days ago, Mr. Link."

Was my name Link? I hadn't thought about it until just that moment but I realized that I couldn't remember my name. Suddenly the diner felt cold and much smaller than when I'd first woke up. "How do you know me? Why did we meet? Are you the attorney Miles Long?" I pointed to the card on the table.

He answered without looking at the card, "yes, that's me. You came into my office in a frenzied state shouting about wormholes and being from the future or the past, you didn't seem to remember. We found your name in your wallet but not much else." He stopped there and resumed studying me with that half crooked smile.

"How did I get here in this diner? Who am I and why you?" My head was about to explode with all the unanswered questions rattling around in it. I again examined the items on the table. "I don't have a wallet on me and all I seem to have are the items in front of me. Why would I have these specific items and what happened to the wallet you said I had two days ago? Why ninety-seven dollars specifically? Doesn't that seem strange? Of course, it does because all of this seems strange." I answered my own last question but still looked at him pleading for answers to the rest.

"I think I can answer the question about the money on the table. When you came into the office you said you wanted to hire me but I told you I'm not a private eye. You ignored me and threw a hundred dollar bill at me. At first, I thought you were insane so I refused the money but you insisted and kept shoving it in my hand. To appease you I said you could hire me for three days of work and I'd only charge you a dollar a day. My secretary dipped into petty cash to make the change." He paused as the waitress came over to check on us and refill our cups. "I thought that would be the end of it and I'd never see you again. But later that night, a story ran on the evening news of reports of a flash of light and a strange thunderstorm that seemed to only pop up over the south end of Warren Street, which is a block from my office. Now I was at home that night so I didn't witness the storm but my junior associate lives above the office and relayed his account of the event the next morning. I was intrigued so I began looking into your story further. That's when I ran across another man with a similar story as yours, Doctor Ivan Kratzenburg do you know him?" He asked.

"Doctor Kratzenburg is a famous scientist teaching string theory at Harvard University. He disappeared two years ago from his office while working late one evening. I was researching him." I paused then shouted, "I'm a journalist!" The waitress almost dropped the coffee pot and threw me a disgusted look. I mouthed an apology before turning back to Miles, "I must have been working on a story about the disappearance. But that doesn't explain how I went from the year 2021 to 1982 and this diner." I exhaled with a great sigh.

"I might have a theory about that. I spoke to Doctor Kratzenburg on the phone yesterday at length. He's living in Springdale, a town about an hour's drive from here. I told him about you and he remembers reading your articles in the Washington Post. See, he says you're not from around here and, to his knowledge you've never even been to Missouri. But Kratzenburg was born right here in Washburn on the very spot we are sitting right now. This whole area used to be farmland before the county expanded and turned it into restaurants, shops, and apartment homes. Kratzenburg thinks that you stumbled onto the same wormhole that brought him here two years ago. He says he woke up in the very spot that you did tonight and with the same disoriented feelings you have right now. After our conversation, I went to the public library to look up weather patterns from two years ago. The same storm that my associate experienced two nights ago happened the same night Doctor Kratzenburg showed up here two years ago." He paused and took a long sip of cold coffee. He signaled the waitress for a top-up and she brought over a piping hot pot of fresh coffee to refill our cups.

After she was out of earshot he resumed speaking, "See, I think the doc is right. I think you somehow gained access to his office, classroom, or something and you fell through the same wormhole. I'm no expert on how these things work but the doc agrees that this is what must've happened to you. He requested to meet you here this morning and was adamant the meeting take place at one o'clock but I have no idea why. I called you last night to let you know but the hotel clerk said you didn't answer his call. I left you a message and hoped you'd show up. When I walked in and saw you were asleep I thought I'd let you rest up a bit."

I leaned back in my seat and breathed out a heavy sigh. It was a lot to take in at once and I wasn't sure I believed Miles' tale. But I had to admit that the story fit, except I don't remember ever going to Miles' office, staying in a hotel, or coming to this diner. In fact, I don't remember anything prior to waking up in this booth. I sat up and examined the items on the table. I ran my fingers over each item as if touching them would bring back the memories. Miles explained the cash and that made sense, providing his story held water. That also explained why I would have his business card. If I'm right and I am a journalist then the pen and pad of paper also made sense. The key could fit the hotel room where I'm supposedly staying which just left the paperclip, coin, and button all of which confounded me.

I sighed again before speaking, "that explains the business card, cash, paper, and pen. But what about the paperclip, coin, and button? Does this look like a hotel key for where I'm staying? I just realized I have no idea where I'm staying."

"I misspoke when I called it a hotel. It's actually Ms. Whittingham's boarding house. I suggested it when you were in my office, as I assumed you had no place to stay because you'd just escaped the sanitarium. I figured I'd call and have the police check on you later but I got bogged down in cases and forgot to call them. That key is likely the one to your room, though I'm not certain since I've never stayed there myself. Mrs. Miller, my secretary gave you the coin. She thought maybe you could call your family to come and get you. The poor thing refused to believe your story and was worried someone might be looking for you. That explains the mystery of the coin and key. Unfortunately, I can't explain the other items." He shrugged and looked at his watch. "Doctor Kratzenburg should've been here by now. It's half past one in the morning and I got the impression from our phone conversation that he's not the kind of man to be tardy. Let me see if the waitress will let me use her phone to ring him up." He stood up and walked over to the counter to talk to the waitress. She seemed annoyed but finally relented and handed him the phone. I could see that it was an old-style rotary phone and I chuckled to myself at the sight of it.

I started to ponder this situation more intently, realizing that if I truly was in 1982 I'd have to be very careful what I spoke about. I was suddenly concerned I'd slip up and reveal something from the future that could potentially change it. After all, I'd seen the movies and I knew how it worked. It did work like that, right? I considered that for a few minutes before dismissing the whole thing as nonsense and focused once more on the button and paperclip. Why would I have these two items? I may not remember much about myself but I felt if I had these items they had to mean something. I picked up the paperclip and rolled it around in my fingers, examining it closely. It looked as if it had been straightened then bent back into its original shape. Why would someone do that? It was close but not quite perfect as most paperclip shapes. I didn't see any other identifying marks so I placed it back on the table and turned my attention to the button. It was brass with worn raised bits that I couldn't make out. It was real brass forged in the USA; not the cheap overseas crap you see nowadays. Or whatever days. Thinking about this was making my head hurt.

As I was turning the button around in my fingers and scrutinizing it closely, Miles returned to the table with a concerned expression clouding his features. He took a long sip of coffee before speaking.

"He didn't answer the phone. I let it ring for a long time but he didn't answer." He paused and picked up the paperclip absentmindedly. "Maybe he's en route to meet us and he's hung up in traffic, lost, or something." I offered. "No, I don't think so. It's a straight shot from Springdale to here down the highway and traffic is nonexistent at this hour. It should've only taken him about forty minutes to get here but Kratzenburg said to me that he doesn't get out much nor does he drive. When he has to leave the house he uses a car service which he casually mentioned by name in our conversation. I just called them and they confirmed there have been no pick-ups at his address tonight or in the past three weeks." He took another sip of coffee before pushing the cup away to signal he was done with it.

"You said he lives about an hour away and, at this time of day the trip could only take forty minutes. Do you have his address? We could just go to this house and see if he's home." I advocated.

He placed the paperclip back in it's place on the table and looked up at me. "That's a great idea. Grab your stuff and we'll take my car." He threw a ten-dollar bill on the table for the coffee and headed for the door. I quickly scooped up the items from the table and shoved them in my jacket pocket, then hurried to catch up to Miles who had already stepped outside. As I started to push open the door I had a feeling of apprehension that made me hesitate ever so slightly before fully opening the door.

I stepped out into bright mid-day sun so warm it felt like it was the middle of July. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust and I blinked furiously trying to get my bearings. I looked around for Miles but I didn't see him. Wait, where am I? I took a few steps then turned around. Behind me was a large building with glass revolving doors. I stumbled as I continued to walk backward, looking up at the building in bewilderment. I was outside the Harvard Science Center where Doctor Kratzenburg's office was located.

What just happened? One second ago I was in Missouri in 1982 following a man I didn't know to a place I'd never been to meet a ghost. How did I end up back here on the campus of Harvard? I patted my breast pocket to find my phone safely tucked away and pulled it out. The date read Monday, October 4, 2021, and my weather app showed an unseasonable heatwave had descended on Cambridge.

I sat down on a nearby bench and rubbed my head. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out what had just happened. It was as if I'd never left. Did I even go into Kratzenburg's office? I reached into the pockets of my jacket, now causing me to sweat in this heat so I just removed it to finish fishing out the contents. There was the pad of paper and pen, wallet with the hundred dollar bill, button, and paper clip straightened except for a small curved bit at the tip. I realized now that the paper clip had probably been used to pick a lock, likely the lock to Kratzenberg's office. But the button was still puzzling me.

As I sat on the bench turning the button over in my hand trying to figure out what it meant, I heard someone calling out to me.

"Mr. Link, Charlie Link!" an older man was running from across the lawn straight for me and I stood up with caution. As the man got closer I realized it was Doctor Kratzenberg and he breathlessly enveloped me in an embrace that surprised me. He had tears in his eyes as he spoke, "I can never repay you or thank you for what you have done for me. I am forever in your debt." He took my hand in his and shook it violently.

"Your welcome, I think," I said with much confusion in my voice. "I'm not sure what I did but I'm glad your alive and well." I still had the button in my hand turning it over between my fingers. Kratzenberg looked at my hand and smiled as he said, "you found it. Thank God you found it! I was hoping someone would find it."

"You mean this?" I held up the button for him to examine further and he motioned for us to sit on the bench. He took the button from my fingers and held it up to me as if it were a trophy. "I found this button while visiting South Carolina with my family eight years ago. It belonged to the uniform of Colonel Samuel James of the confederate army. It was found in a box of old coins my grandfather had collected. Have you ever heard of Samuel James?" I opened my mouth to decline ever hearing of him but Doctor Kratzenberg interrupted me. "Of course you haven't heard of him because history doesn't recognize that he ever existed. Oh, but he did exist at least for a solid year. I believe he's the first person to ever cross over into an alternate reality and this button proves it. Missouri in 1982 is not the first place and time I've been to, Mr. Link. Eight years ago I crossed over to 1862 South Carolina and the battle of Secessionville where I met Colonel James for the first time. I was completely dumbfounded and lost, having no idea where I was or how I got there. All I knew was there were guns firing and bullets whizzing all around me. I was completely terrified and frozen in place. Colonel James saved my life. He swept in on his horse and grabbed me up traversing back to his camp and relative safety. In my confused state, I began blurting out who I was and how I thought I'd come to be there. He sat quietly whittling at a piece of wood just listening to every word. Finally, he stopped me from rambling on further and just said he believed every word of my outlandish story because the same thing had happened to him a year earlier. Only he didn't go to the past but to the future where he met my grandfather in a pub in England."

"All of this may seem like a time-traveling story to you but I assure you it is not. You and I didn't time travel as much as we shifted to a possible timeline; an alternate reality if you will. This is exactly what happened to Colonel James and what I believe happened to him again. I think that's why no one has ever heard of him and why he's not mentioned in any history book. I think he's lost in another reality and I've been trying to find him ever since I came back, which is how I ended up in 1982. I had reason to believe that's where he was but it turns out I was wrong." He stopped and handed the button back to me.

"But how did we cross into another reality?" I asked, confusion tinting my words. "I'm still trying to work that one out myself, Mr. Link. I'm not exactly sure but it has something to do with that button, but I have no idea how it works. Now that I'm back in 2021 I can focus my work on figuring it out and I have you to thank for that." We sat quietly pondering our mutual adventures for a few minutes when he spoke again. "Are you going to write a story in the paper about this?"

"Honestly, I'm not sure I can write this one up. If I do my editor along with all of my colleagues and the public at large will think I've gone mad. On the other hand, it's a fantastic story that could sell millions of copies." I exhaled a sigh and sat back against the bench. "I think I'm going to have to think on this one for a while, Doc before I make a move to publish. I don't want to ruin my career. Maybe this one is better as a work of fiction. Maybe we should both count ourselves lucky and go on living our lives." I handed the button back to the doctor and bid him adieu before walking off to try and find where I parked the rental car.

science fiction

stephanie owens

Young at heart trying out a new hobby/skill. I've always been a pretty good story teller and excited to try a new creative outlet to share my stories and experiences.

Read next: His Touch

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